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LADIES SWING THE BLUES, a jazzy revue, begins Paul Robeson Theatre’s season on a high

THE BASICS: LADIES SWING THE BLUES, with book and original lyrics by Thomas W. Jones, II, original music by William A. Knowles, interspersed with hits of the mid-20th century, directed by Jones II, runs through October 13, Fridays and Saturdays at 8, Sundays at 4, at the Paul Robeson Theatre at the African American Cultural Center, 350 Masten Avenue near Utica (884-2013). Runtime: 90 minutes without intermission (buy your fresh popcorn, candy, water, or iced tea before the show)

THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Set in 1955 in the NYC jazz club “Birdland” named after bebop jazz legend Charlie “Bird” Parker, we learn that Parker (1920-1955) has recently died under mysterious circumstances complicated by heroin and alcohol addiction. For the next 90 minutes and 24 songs, presented by his contemporaries Billie Holiday (b. 1915), Ella Fitzgerald (1917), Peggy Lee (1920), and Sarah Vaughan (1924) Parker comes in and out of scenes, to set his record straight. It’s a celebration of five American jazz performers whose careers began as awkward teenagers in the 1930s but who, through grit and determination and tons of talent, became icons.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Having just enjoyed Thomas W. Jones, II’s THREE SISTAHS last May at The Paul Robeson Theatre, my anticipation of another success was well-rewarded. Anytime you’re at the PRT, you know the band will be excellent, but here it was especially exciting as the seasoned veterans Frazier Thomas Smith (keyboard and Music Direction), Ben Levitt (bass), and Abdul Rahman Qadir (drums) were joined by two young Buffalo State graduates, Quentin McCauley (sax) and Jeremy Nesbit (trumpet). You can watch “the torch being passed” right before your very eyes.

Here are some things you’ll want to know before you go.

Alto Sax virtuoso Parker is, along with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk (and later Miles Davis) famous for inventing a whole new genre of music – “progressive jazz” – popularly known as “bebop.” Using lightning fast scales with unusual tunings called “modes” these men were striving to create music that, as Monk said, “nobody else could play.” Because of its complexities, bebop was embraced by the intellectuals and the “beat generation” in the 1940s and 50s, including author Jack Kerouac, who is mentioned in the musical.

Another fellow, not only mentioned, but with his likeness projected on the stage for quite some time, is Billy Eckstine. After the show, which seemed a little light on content, or maybe it just went by so quickly, I decided to read up on him. His biographer Cary Ginell told NPR that Eckstine was the first band leader to bring together the founders (including Sarah Vaughan) of “bebop,” a term he hated because it sounded derisive. I doubt that most people would know about his bebop background because later, when that sound wasn’t commercially successful, he switched over to crooning. Apparently, Eckstine was the first black artist to fully cross color lines, rivaling Frank Sinatra in popularity, until 1950 when a photo in LIFE magazine showed white teenage girls mobbing the singer after a show, and white America wasn’t ready for that. Radio stations started to pull his records.

Eckstine was the first black artist to fully cross color lines, rivaling Frank Sinatra in popularity.

Suggestion: How about a musical telling Billy Eckstine’s story?

Speaking of Eckstine and his progressive jazz band, lest you think “I don’t really like bebop” rest assured that even though Parker’s short life is the spine upon which the story rests, almost all of the singing is by Sarah “Sassy” Vaughan (Latosha Jennings), Ella Fitzgerald (Brittany M. Rumph) remembered for, if not inventing, at least perfecting “scat” (wordless vocalizations), Billie “Lady Day” Holiday (Lyly Jones) and Peggy Lee (Kacy Lynn Carbone).

We are treated to 24 songs, solos, duets, trios, and full cast numbers, most of which are original creations by Jones II and Knowles, but at least 7 are famous, published numbers, including “Fever;” “Round Midnight;” a medley of “Got A Pebble In My Shoe,” “Swing Brother,” and “Your Mother’s Son in Law;” along with “Lullaby of Birdland;” “Flying Home;” and “A Night in Tunisia.” Of course, all the songs regardless of original writers are “through composed” with Knowles providing seamless segues throughout the show.

Peggy Lee (and singer Kacy Lynn Carbone) were definitely the outliers of the evening. Lee, who was white, is associated with white jazz musicians, such as George Shearing, and her career, as far as I can tell, was primarily as a singer of pop songs. True, she was born in 1920, the same year as Parker, but if there were stronger Parker/Lee connections, or if there were some points to be made, I didn’t pick them up. And, Carbone’s voice just didn’t have the power of her three female companions, so that further separated her from the rest.

L-R Rumph, Carbone, Jones, Jennings, Campfield

Carbone is also called upon to play the difficult role of Parker’s seemingly mysterious friend, patron, and supporter of bebop Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, a Rothschild scion, in whose Stanhope Hotel suite Parker died while watching television. That storyline was all new to me and a little confusing, especially with Carbone attempting an English accent.

Another issue for me was the quality or clarity of John Campfield’s speaking voice. Taking on the role of Charlie Parker, Campfield’s singing voice is a very rich baritone with complex overtones, sounding like a very sexy, reedy saxophone. But given the amount of information he must convey in his role as Charlie Parker the speaker/quasi-narrator a little more clarity would have been appreciated.

So, I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night (or afternoon) at the theater. Note to patrons, PRT shows seem to build audiences through word of mouth, and the final Sunday matinees are often sold-out, so consider that in your planning.

UP NEXT: TWO TRAINS RUNNING, by August Wilson the sixth in his ten-play “Pittsburgh Cycle” (which includes FENCES, JITNEY, MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM, KING HEDLEY II etc.) set in the 1960s after the death of Malcolm X, amid rising racial tension and the Black Power movement, which sees restaurant owner Memphis Lee about to lose his restaurant to economic development and gentrification.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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